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Nikwasi-Cherokee Cultural Heritage Corridor Pilgrimage held in conjunction with 25th Annual Trail of tears Association Conference

By Kristin Fox

Western North Carolina hosted the Nikwasi-Cherokee Cultural Heritage Corridor Pilgrimage. The three-day event was held in conjunction with the 25th Annual Trail of Tears Association Conference & Symposium in Franklin, Bryson City and Cherokee.

The Trail of Tears Association (TOTA) is a non-profit, membership organization formed in 1993 to support the creation, development, and interpretation of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. TOTA , a citizen’s organization of national and international members, has state chapters in nine states through which the Trail traverses. 

Attending the pilgrimage were members of TOTA from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee. The group traveled from Harrah’s Convention Center in Cherokee to Franklin to the historic Nikwasi to begin the pilgrimage. 

The group was welcomed to Franklin by Master of Ceremonies, Bob McCollum with the Nikwasi Initiative. Jim Tate, Macon County Commissioner Chairman, delivered the welcome address from Macon County followed by the greeting on behalf of North Carolina by D. Reid Wilson, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

“As the secretary one of my top priorities across our department is to ensure that we tell more inclusive, accurate, and representative stories about the people and history of our state, a long and rich and sometimes complicated history that began with the American Indians,” said Wilson. “We as a department are interested in bringing more attention to the story of the Trail of Tears and teaching future generations about this important history.”

“New evidence has led to the identification of a Trail of Tears (TOT) route through 40 miles of Macon County with many miles of original trail surviving on lands currently owned by the state, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), Mainspring Conservation Trust or U.S. Forest Service,” added Wilson. “This route, which has not been certified by the National Park Services an important step that has been discussed with the department, presents a unique opportunity for diverse partnerships to develop public assess corridors, greenways and trails so that more people can experience the original trail as it was or as close as possible to what it was so people can understand ancient Cherokee homeland.”

Other local dignitaries in attendance included Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale, North Carolina Senator Kevin Corbin and North Carolina State Representative Karl Gillespie. Superintendent Aaron Mahr with the National Park Services and Trail of Tears also welcomed the group to Macon County.

On behalf of Chief Richard Sneed, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who was unable to attend the pilgrimage because he was called to Washington, D.C., Shana Bushyhead Condill, a citizen of EBCI and Executive Director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, welcomed the group to Nikwasi, one of the Cherokee’s most sacred sites.

“As we consider our role of protectors of our cultural heritage, protection of our sacred sites is a responsibility that we take incredibly seriously,” said Condill. “We will always advocate for the highest level of protection when for so long, too long, these places were not in our control.”

“The Eastern Band has done much work to regain control of these sacred sites, but much more work needs to be done,” she added. “As you hear about this sacred place, I am hopeful that we can continue to collaborate in a way that is most respectful of its continued significant to us as Cherokee people.”

Following the speakers at the future home of the EBCI museum and tour of the Historic Nikwasi Mound, the group traveled across the street to the Mainspring Conservation Trust for lunch and speakers. Stacy Guffey with the Franklin Town Council and the Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center and Elaine Eisernbraun, with the Nikwasi Initiative, welcomed the group to the Mainspring campus. 

The group then traveled to Cowee for a program at the EBCI Community Forest presented by Ben Steere, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, and Brett Riggs, Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies, at Western Carolina University. Participants were given the chance to walk the unique forest and delve into the early history of Cowee including the archaeology of the area. The presentation at Cowee discussed the community in the 19th century, its role in the Euchellah v. Welch case, and its relevance to removal as situated on the Trail of Tears.

McCollum and Guffey welcomed the group to a program at the Cowee School & Heritage Center. Dr. Bill Jurgelski presented a program “To Hold Your Land Separate Among Yourselves, Reservations, Removal and the Treaty of 1819 in Western North Carolina.” Following a reception, Lamar Marshall Southeast Heritage Research Director presented a program TOT through Raven Creek Settlement. Marshall has worked extensively to create a map which was presented to the group showing the TOT route and its many foot trails discovered in Macon County.

While visiting the Cowee Area, the group was given the opportunity to tour the Cowee Townsite and Mound. The town was located along a major trade route in a bend of the Little Tennessee River, one of the most prominent Cherokee Middle Towns. It was an important center for trade and diplomacy in the 18th century.

The pilgrimage concluded with a program at Kituwah Town & Mound, located between Cherokee and Bryson City. Kituwah was the great Mother Town of the Cherokee people. The ancient town place remained in possession of the Cherokee people until 1821. One hundred seventy-six years later, the EBCI purchased the property, restoring Kituwah, properly called Ani-Kituwagi or the People of Kituwah.

The welcome ceremony at Kituwah included Yana Wade, EBCI Cultural Heritage, Cherokee royalty Amy West, and Leroy Littlejohn. Following a traditional dinner, participants enjoyed a cultural ceremony including flutist Jarrett Grey Wilcatt, TOTA President Jack Baker, storyteller Kathy Littlejohn, the Raven Rock Dancers, and Warriors of Ani Kituwah. The program concluded with a departing prayer by Tom Belt.

The Trail of Tears, designated as a national historic trail by Congress in 1987, commemorates the forced removal of the Cherokee people from their homelands in the southeastern United States to Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma, from 1838 to 1839.

In 1993, TOTA entered into a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service (NPS) to promote and engage in the protection and preservation of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail resources. In addition, the agreement promotes awareness of the Trails’ legacy, including the effects of the U.S. Government’s Indian Removal Policy on the Cherokees and other tribes, primarily the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, and Seminole, and to perpetuate the management and development techniques that are consistent with the NPS’s trail plan.

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